Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis: ‘How we survived when Mekelle was shelled’


Building hit by shelling in Mekelle before 28 November

A son orphaned, a daughter lying in a coma, an elderly woman killed – these are just some of the casualties reported by a doctor and other survivors of the bombardment of their city by the Ethiopian military during its operation to overthrow the ruling party in the northern Tigray region.

Their accounts of what happened in Tigray’s capital Mekelle – which has a population of about 500,000 – contradict that of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

He told the federal parliament that the military had not killed a single civilian during the operation that led to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being ousted from power in the region on 28 November.

Mr Abiy ordered an air and ground offensive against the TPLF on 4 November after it seized military bases in Tigray, following two years of tensions over the political direction of Ethiopia.

There was a communication blackout during much of the operation, but with mobile phone services now restored, the BBC spoke to several residents – whose names are being withheld for their safety – about their ordeal.

Warning: Some people might find some of the descriptions upsetting

Landlord in Ayder district:

Heavy artillery fire destroyed four homes in my compound on Saturday, 28 November. In one family, only a boy survived. His father, mother and two sisters died on the spot. Their bodies were destroyed, almost to pieces. For six years, they were my tenants. What happened to them was very sad.

In the compound, three other women were wounded – one on the hand, another on the leg and the third on her face and breast. Two of them are still in hospital.

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image captionThe TPLF-controlled regional government was headquartered in Mekelle since 1991

My wife was also injured, but not badly. I was wounded on the chest, and still have the injuries. We both got discharged from the Ayder Referral Hospital (the main hospital in Mekelle) a few days ago.

It was very hard to get proper treatment because of the shortage of medicines, equipment and even doctors. There were many causalities, and the hospital was focusing on those with major injuries.

When I got discharged the hospital told me to buy medicines for myself and my wife from pharmacies outside, but they did not have the medicine. They were out of stock.

Life is difficult. For about 40 days now, the main markets are closed. We cannot get basic necessities. It is hard to even get food.

Many residents who fled Mekelle to save their lives are not yet back. We do not know about their whereabouts.

A young mother-of-two in Hawelti district:

There was artillery fire and bombardment in Mekelle before the 28th. But on that day, it was in my area.

It started in the morning and carried on into the evening. Some of the artillery was passing over our home. We were scared. The children were crying.

One of the shells destroyed a house in the area. It killed an elderly lady and wounded her daughter very badly. She is still in a coma at Ayder Referral Hospital.

Most of our neighbours left Mekelle before the shelling on 28 November.

image captionTPLF forces withdrew from Mekelle ahead of the offensive by the Ethiopian military

But me, my children, and some other tenants stayed in my house because of a disabled lady who could not run away. But when the shelling got heavier on that day, we went to a nearby building that was still under construction.

We hid in its basement, where we spent the night.

‘Hungry troops ask for food’

The next morning, we started hearing the voices of people, but we still stayed there until we felt it was safe to come out.

Later on, we saw federal soldiers who had now taken over.

They asked for food and water because the markets and shops were all closed.

We had little food which we were sharing among ourselves, but I gave them some of it.

image captionSatellite images have captured some of the damage to buildings in the market area in Mekelle

Now, some markets have reopened, but the prices are very high. They keep going up because of the shortages.

In some other areas in Mekelle, water and electricity supplies have been restored, but not where I live. I have a big oven, which is lit with firewood.

I make injera (a pancake-like fermented bread, which is a staple in Ethiopia) in it. My neighbours also come and use the oven.

We get water from boreholes or from the outskirts of Mekelle.

image copyrightGetty Images

The federal soldiers are patrolling the city. Residents get nervous when they come face-to-face with them because of rumours that in other parts of Tigray the soldiers looted properties and shot people. But I have not seen them do this in Mekelle.

In some parts of the city, they are going house-to-house, looking for wanted people. But that is not happening where I am.

‘Freed prisoners looted city’

We are still under a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Until a few days ago, we used to hear a lot of gunshots at night. People say young men were being killed by the soldiers.

They were breaking the curfew to go out to protect properties because of robberies and looting.

More eyewitness account from the Tigray conflict:

  • Medics on the run: ‘I hid in the woods to flee shooting’

  • ‘How I survived an 11-hour gun battle’
  • ‘Why my uncle crossed a river to become a refugee’

When the soldiers confronted them for defying the curfew, they challenged them and they were shot.

The police – who were under the regional government – are no longer on the streets. There were a lot of robberies, especially in the first few days after the regional government lost control of the city.

Most of the crime was done by prisoners who got out of jail. We do not whether they were released or they escaped. Some residents were also involved in the robberies.

But this has largely stopped now.

Doctor at Ayder Referral Hospital

We survived the harsh situation. I am OK with my family. But some people who lived near the hospital were killed by artillery fire.

From around 10:00 on Saturday, 28 November, the federal forces fired cannons and other heavy weaponry into the city. It carried on into the evening.

I myself counted the bodies of 22 people brought to the hospital – seven in the morning and 15 in the evening. They were all civilians. Some of the bodies could not be recognised.

image captionThe Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied targeting civilians during the operation

Of those who could be identified, there was a girl who was about 10 years old and a woman who was about 70.

The dead were from different areas in the city – 15 Kebelle, Endageberieal, Menahariya and Kebelle 12.

We received more than 70 wounded, including an 18-month-old child.

More on the Tigray crisis:

media captionThree consequences of the ongoing crisis in Tigray

About two weeks before the federal forces captured the city, there was an air strike that hit one of the campuses of Mekelle University.

We treated 22 wounded students. Unfortunately, one of them, a sociology student, died.

A mother and her seven-year-old daughter were also killed in another air strike in the Enderta area.

The mother died on the spot. Her daughter was brought to the hospital with head injuries, and one of her eyes had been destroyed. We tried our best to save her life but she did not survive.

There was a severe shortage of beds, medicines and medical equipment. The federal government is now sending supplies, but the hospital is still not fully functional.

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